The Ball State community will remember March 2020 as the month that society came to a standstill due to the novel Coronavirus. The closure of national borders had already begun, causing university closures to spread with almost the same swiftness as the virus itself. Though disappointed, the Study Abroad Office was not surprised by the rapid turn of events. The virus had been on the offices’ radar from its initial coverage in international headlines in December of 2019. The office had been sending alerts to students since January. Although study abroad had weathered similar situations, such as SARS, MERS, and the Swine Flu, there was no precedent for an entire global lockdown. “The health and welfare of our students have always been our primary concern,” stated Director of Study Abroad John Jensen when asked how Ball State University makes decisions on student mobility. “Discussions between the Study Abroad Office, the Provost’s Office, Risk Management, Business Affairs, and many other units on campus began early on to ensure that we were prepared to implement the necessary steps needed to safeguard our students, faculty, and staff.” After considerable consultation, the Provost’s Office made the difficult decision to suspend all student mobility on March 5, 2020. The Study Abroad Office immediately went into action. Initially, only programs that had not yet departed were suspended. However, as conditions rapidly worsened, the decision was made to bring home students currently overseas.
One Ball State student who lived through these tough decisions was Gwen Thompson, one of the Study Abroad Office’s current peer-advisors (pictured). Before Gwen left for her exchange program with Keele University, England, in January 2020, she had heard of COVID, but she didn’t expect it to have any impact on her studies. “It wasn’t until about the end of February when COVID started to become a concern, and at that time, we still did not realize how much everything would change.” Gwen reported that she soon started getting messages from American and international friends, sharing their experiences and concerns as their programs were canceled. As time went on, she experienced the world shutting down around her while her small pocket of England remained untouched. Eventually, on March 16, she was notified to book her flight home. After doing so, she finished her time abroad in a pub with her few friends left on campus; then, the next day stepped into a whole new world of masks, gloves, and PPE inside the airport. She recounts the airport as being chaotic, but overall, she found her way home and began her fourteen-day quarantine period immediately.
According to Assistant Director of Study Abroad, Kelly Kirkwood, a systematic process was implemented to bring students home based on host country conditions and restrictions, availability of air transport, and partner recommendations. “We had to make every decision on a case-by-case basis. If a student went to the airport, s/he risked being exposed, but if s/he decided to wait it out, there was the chance of being trapped in the country until more flights are available,” Kelly said as she reflected on the complexities of travel at that time. By constantly contacting each student, partnering institutions, and third-party providers, the Study Abroad Office managed to get all its students home safely in spring 2020. The office worked tirelessly with partner institutions to ensure that the academic integrity of students’ credits would be upheld. Study Abroad staff provided virtual opportunities to finish their education remotely and proctored exams here in the U.S. The Study Abroad Office aided in mitigating the financial impact by working with partners in multiple offices (both on campus and abroad) to ensure that students could recover any funds. Once all the students were safely back on U.S. soil, the Study Abroad Office turned to address future concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic.
Since March 2020, the Study Abroad Office has continued to operate as usual, despite not sending students on their programs. Kirkwood explains, “Everything we do is future-oriented, so most daily operations are similar to pre-pandemic.” The office provides advisory sessions, refers students for financial aid or scholarships, and accepts and processes student study abroad applications. Peer advisors continue to offer appointments to introduce interested students to the various types of programs available and guide them toward the program that best fits their educational goals and personal preferences. Study Abroad Director Jensen and Assistant Director Kirkwood offer advisory appointments for more specialized situations while tracking Covid’s global status. Unfortunately, each successive term of study has been unable to move forward as conditions have not yet improved sufficiently to allow mobility. Each specific program and country will need to pass various safety metrics to determine if circumstances have improved to enable student mobility. These safety metrics are as broad and as detailed as one could imagine, starting with a general consideration of the U.S. Department of State’s travel advisory levels, funneling down to a very detailed look at the number of COVID cases, quarantine and vaccination requirements, access to U.S. Embassies and Consulates, border restrictions, and curfews in each country and program location. COVID brings new complexities not only to travel but to the individual programs themselves. The office takes these decisions very seriously, realizing that students’ future experiences are affected, but also their finances, living situations, academic progress, and most importantly, their health. Kirkwood assures that the office is keeping a constant watch on global updates and will communicate directly with each one of its prospective students promptly on the status of their desired program.
When asked to consider the future of studying abroad, Directors Jensen and Kirkwood are both realistic and hopeful. Kirkwood believes the return to global mobility will happen in stages as each university, country, and then the world successfully negotiates the virus. We are seeing this now, as some overseas universities have opened back up to international students. However, there is still a long way to go as passport processing delays, visas remain difficult to obtain, and nearly all U.S. Department of State travel levels are at a 3 or 4. Jensen does foresee some permanent changes to the field of international education, primarily as it relates to risk mitigation and oversight. The global pandemic has exposed weaknesses in universities’ insurance programs, forcing many universities to reconsider and renegotiate their long-held insurance policies. He also expects that we will soon see greater reliance on third-party study abroad programs that provide better on-site, in-country program connections and support for students. Despite all the complications and new complexities brought into studying abroad by COVID, Jensen and Kirkwood are still hopeful for a future of sending students abroad because our need for human connection and global understanding is now more vital than ever.
Article authored by Gwen Thompson, peer advisor with the Study Abroad office.